Science-based training device to help athletes breathe better

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Imagine this scenario:

You are only steps away from the chains. Your heart is pounding and you’re so breathless that your eyes pop out of your skull like ping pong balls. You rush for the final crimp, your body collapses and you fall. Coming back down to earth, you are desperately out of breath and you think:

I really should do more cardio.

Cardio is ideal for climbers. In addition to lowering your resting heart rate and boosting recovery, cardiovascular fitness increases metabolic efficiency and helps you do more physical work while expending less energy. Plus, rock climbing is a complete sport, so whatever form of cardio you choose – treadmill, bike, or high-intensity interval training – there will be cross-benefits in the neuromuscular system.

In addition to cardio, you can go to the root of the source: your respiratory and expiratory muscles. Using a respiratory restriction trainer, you can pressure your respiratory system to make positive adaptations for deeper, more powerful breathing, all from your couch.

Airofit

I had heard of breath restrictors before, mostly when I was in college, where I was studying health and exercise science. Then I found out that my boyfriend’s sister, a professional dancer, had used a breath restrictor to get rid of asthma, which had developed after Covid. My interest piqued.

After a quick google search I came across Airofit Pro, a breathing trainer that connects to an app on your phone, which acts as a personal breathing coach. The app offers various breathing protocols, from improving power to reducing anxiety, and it tracks your progress via a few measurable indicators.

I tested the Airofit for about three months to see how it affected my climbing and general health.

Weights for your lungs

The Airofit is a fully customizable mouthpiece. You turn dials on either side of the device, adjusting the amount of air you can inhale and exhale. It follows the airflow and sends data to your phone. After charging the Airofit, the app will ask you to do an initial lung test, which measures your accessible lung capacity, peak inspiratory pressure, and peak expiratory pressure. This data, combined with your age, gender, height and weight, is used to generate your personal training plan.

The Airofit app will ask you to do an initial lung test, which measures your accessible lung capacity, peak inspiratory pressure, and peak expiratory pressure. This data, combined with your age, gender, height and weight, is used to generate your personal training plan. (Photo: Courtesy of Airofit)

Accessible lung capacity, or vital lung capacity, is the amount of air your lungs can actually take in and out. Greater vital lung capacity ultimately means more oxygen circulating, which has many benefits. Vital lung capacity is influenced by the strength of your diaphragm and your intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs). Diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can significantly reduce it, as can age.

Peak inspiratory pressure, as the name suggests, is an indication of how hard you breathe or how much air you can take in. Increasing it means you can take deeper breaths, thus using less energy to absorb oxygen. Peak expiratory pressure is equally important, as increasing it will allow you to expel more carbon dioxide in a single exhale.

You can positively affect your vital lung capacity, as well as inspiratory and expiratory pressure, by training your lungs and surrounding tissues just as you would any other muscle in the body. Respiratory training devices, such as the Airofit, are like weights for your lungs: they make breathing much more difficult and thus promote adaptation.

Trained as a classical singer, Christian Tullberg Poulsen originally designed the Airofit to help him in his craft. After having three sons, all competitive swimmers, he began to see the potential benefits of his device for athletes. After qualifying for the Nordic Junior Championships, his eldest son trained with Airofit for three months and then won his age group. Poulsen then worked with a team of scientists to modify his breathing apparatus, making it compatible with a smartphone app.

Today, Airofit is used by swimmers, runners, cyclists, golfers, crossfitters, people seeking recovery from illnesses that affect lung health, and people simply looking for general benefits like better sleep and better mental health.

Backed by science

Ambu International, a company that develops and tests diagnostic and life support devices for healthcare professionals, conducted a study in 2012, published in the journal of Sports medicine. The study measured the effect on performance via a standard 12-minute running test, performed before and after the two-month trial. Participants were divided into three groups: a control group, group “2” using the Airofit with moderate resistance training settings, and group “3” using the Airofit with high resistance training settings. . The control group improved by 0.5%. Group 2 improved by 8% and Group 3 by 33%, demonstrating that the higher the intensity of training with Airofit, the better the performance results in running.

In one 2001 studyPosted in Sport and exercise medicine and science, 14 competitive rowers were divided into two groups: a control group and an inspiratory muscle training group. The latter performed better than the control in a full six-minute test at four weeks (a 3.5% improvement versus 1.2%) and in a 5000-meter test (times of the inspiratory training group decreased by 3.2%, while control decreased by 0.96%).

(Photo: Courtesy of Airofit)

Also, as detailed in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, a group of healthy and well-trained swimmers was divided into a control group and a respiratory muscle endurance training group. At the end of the eight-week trial, respiratory strength and endurance and competition performance improved only in the respiratory training group.

Zooming out, there are a handful of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that support the benefits of respiratory training. In “Effects of respiratory muscle training on athlete performance,» published in 2013 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Researchthe authors concluded that inspiratory and respiratory muscle training increased athletic and sports performance, as evidenced by respiratory muscle strength and endurance and timed trials.

Not just for your climbing

Some training protocols on the Airofit are designed to help achieve non-sport-focused goals. For example, there are sessions for mindfulness, concentration and mind-body connectivity.

Studies back this up, as does tradition (think how long people have meditated while using specific breathing patterns). Focused, rhythmic breathing can heighten a sense of presence and increase energy. In “How breath control can change your life: a systematic review of the psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing», published in 2018 in Frontiers of Human Neurosciencethe authors explained how slow breathing techniques work on the nervous system to promote psychological well-being.

How to use it

The Airofit team recommends using the devices for around five to 10 minutes a day. I preferred to use mine when: my mind needed to be cleared from work, just before leaving for the gym, before warming up on the cliff, and once in a while to wake up. Workouts are of a fixed duration, then you can continue your training by choosing from a range of targeted exercises. My workout tended to be six minutes long, although I did occasionally do longer bouts.

Our thoughts

I tested the Airofit for several months. During this time, I fell ill with COVID, lost a loved one, and saw another through a life-threatening accident. Despite the interruptions in my daily life and normal training activities, I still made small progress in vital lung capacity, inspiratory pressure and expiratory pressure. Also, quite frankly, using the Airofit was a good way to calm my nerves.

Admittedly, it took me a while to get used to using the Airofit. Even as an athlete, I performed poorly – well below average – when I first learned about it. It was hard, especially the first week. But eventually, like any new form of training, I got used to it.

On the treadmill, I actually felt able to breathe more deeply and therefore lower my heart rate. On the wall, I’m still out of breath at times, but I feel better able to breathe quickly and sharply between powerful movements.

There is one more thing: I have asthma. I’ve had it all my life, and over the past few summers, blanketed in smoke from local fires, my symptoms have only exacerbated. Since using the Airofit I feel more in control of my breathing and less dependent on my inhaler – a major win!

The Airofit isn’t particularly cheap: $299 if you go for the Pro, like me, as I wanted Bluetooth connectivity and personalized workouts in the app. (The Airofit Active is only $129 but doesn’t connect to the app.) Just like other expensive training and recovery devices I own, I use it almost every day and consider it a worthwhile investment. I still do cardio – I love running fast on the treadmill – but I’ve found the Airofit to be a useful addition to my workout arsenal. And I love being able to train from the couch.


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Richard V. Johnson